Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Comedy Trumps Tragedy: A conversation with Stuart Rojstaczer, author of The Mathematician's Shiva


"I’m overeducated and like to tell jokes."  That's how Stuart Rojstaczer begins the About Me page at his website.  That combination of brains and laughter provide the savory broth for his debut novel The Mathematician's Shiva, which hits bookstores at the beginning of September.  Described as "a comic, bittersweet tale of family evocative of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Everything Is Illuminated," The Mathematician's Shiva is about a ragtag group of academics who descend on Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch's house shortly after his mother Rachela ("the greatest female mathematician in history") passes away.  Rumor has it the notoriously eccentric Polish émigré has solved one of the most difficult problems in all of mathematics, and has spitefully taken the solution to her grave.  The mathematicians crash her shiva, determined to find that solution, even if it means tearing up the floorboards or desperately scrutinizing the mutterings of her African Grey parrot.  The following Q & A was generously provided for my use by Stuart's publisher, Penguin Books.  Enjoy--and, please, if you have the answers to one of life's riddles, please don't take it to your grave.  Your family thanks you.



Q:  Is this your first novel?  Could you talk about what inspired you to write this book?

Actually, this is my third novel.  I wrote my first when I was 20.  It was a comic picaresque a la Thomas Pynchon and it was so terrible that I knew I had to get out of the novel writing business and get a PhD. in science.  Then in my forties I wrote novel number two at the behest of my daughter, a comedy about a university led by a lunatic president.  It too was terrible, so terrible that I felt very happy that I’d gone into science all those years ago.  I tried again in my fifties.  I remembered an incident from when my daughter was three.  A well-known Eastern European émigré mathematician was at our house.  All dinner long he kept staring at my daughter.  Then after dinner, he berated me for not teaching my three-year-old algebra because he was convinced, somehow, that she was a math genius.  I thought about that incident many years later.  “What would it be like to be an Eastern European math genius?” I asked myself.  The result was The Mathematician’s Shiva.  It’s leaps and bounds better than my first two novels.  The third time was the charm.

Q:  You’re a PhD geophysicist, and Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch, the narrator of your novel, is an atmospheric scientist.  How did you come to fiction writing from a background in hard science?

I’ve always been a careful and serious reader of fiction, mostly Eastern European fiction and American fiction with strong European influences.  Off and on, I’ve written fiction for decades.  I wasn’t a talented writer, though.  Then in my fifties, I somehow developed what I thought was a unique voice.  I can’t explain how that happened.  It just did.

Q:  Your novel is about academics and academic life, subjects that are very popular in contemporary fiction.  Why do you think that these stories are so appealing, and why did you choose to write about academics yourself?

Academia is a closed setting, a small well-defined community.  In writing a novel, you need to focus on a group of people and the unit of an academic department or discipline is to my mind an ideal natural way to provide that focus.  I spent fifteen years as a professor.  I understand the academic mindset well.  Write about what you know, they say.

Q:  How much did you draw from your own experiences in writing this novel?

The novel has some autobiographical elements, certainly.  The opening is highly autobiographical, for example.  There is a scene where Rachela and her family go to a Russian cultural event and she tries, despite the inevitable tumult that will ensue, to get the Russian performers to defect.  This is something my mother did at least once a year.  But overall about eighty percent of the novel and the characters created come wholly from my imagination.

Q:  Though the novel revolves around the death of Rachela Karnokovitch—the narrator’s mother—and describes the difficulties of life in Eastern Europe under Stalinism, it’s also very funny.  How do you balance comedy and tragedy in your writing, and why do you feel that that’s important?

I think this approach to writing and life—dealing with tragedy through farce and acidic humor—is embedded in Eastern European culture and is especially embedded in Eastern European Jewish culture.  It was part of my day-to-day growing up.  My parents lived through so much horror in their early years that it would have been impossible and intolerable for them to confront it head on.  Comedy is how my family deals with tragedy almost always.  It softens the blow.  It’s usually an acceptable way to state displeasure and heartbreak over oppression.  I think this approach is probably fairly common with cultures that have been subject to cruelty and worse for centuries.

Q:  Rachela was a brilliant mathematician working in a difficult, male-dominated field.  Was her character inspired by anyone in your own life or from history?

I’ve had academic female friends who have told me in painful detail of their difficulties with male colleagues and male leadership in academia.  The playing field is not close to being level.  Sexual harassment is common.  Most feel that they cannot complain because it will be detrimental to their professional standing and note that those who do complain are vilified.  Then there is the problem that their work is slighted simply because they are female.  Those stories influenced my writing, certainly.  There was also the example of my mother, who in her later years ran construction crews and built a subdivision from scratch.  She, too, was in a male-dominated field (even more so than my female academic colleagues), but she had the advantage of having a huge personality and she had lived through WWII.  Nothing could intimidate her.  She could scare people, male and female, with her intensity.  I thought about what it would take to succeed in mathematics in the 1950s as a woman.  That person would have to be even more intimidating than my mother could be in the face of adversity and would have to be leagues smarter than any male in her field.  She’d have to be tall and disarmingly good-looking.  That’s how Rachela Karnokovitch was born.

Q:  History and memory play very important roles in your novel.  How did these forces affect you as you wrote the book?

I come from a family that had to flee their home because of war.  They didn’t come to America because they wanted to be here.  They came because they had no home left.  When your life and past are torn from you like that—when you don’t have even photographs to remind you of a life you view with fondness—you cherish your memories and live them again through narrative.  That’s what my father did, certainly.  He would tell stories about Europe and the war at our dining room table in broken English.  People would come to our house and listen.   My mother would serve cake and tea.  That would be something fairly typical for an evening’s entertainment in my home.  I can talk about great writers who have influenced me, but those stories of the past that my father used to tell Americans in our home—which were a mix of the real and completely fabricated—are the most significant influence on my writing.

Q:  What writers do you admire, and why?  How have they influenced your own writing?

Chekhov is at the top of the list because he had far more understanding about the intricacies of the human mind, heart and soul than anyone I’ve read and he could be articulate and plain spoken at the same time.  That’s what I aim for.  Then there is the mordantly comical approach of Gogol.  Recently I reread him after a forty-year hiatus and I was amazed by how close my writing was to his.  I cannot write without using comic elements.  Dickens always kept the plot front and center and wasn’t afraid to use emotions to drive a story; sometimes I need to be reminded of that to keep my own work from being too cold and erudite.  Mendele and Malamud looked at traditional Jewish life with both tenderness and acidic humor and both are never far from my mind when I write.

Q:  What do you love most about this book, and what do you hope that your readers will love about it?

It’s a book about how people can, through passion, hard work, and talent, overcome obstacles and still be aware of the irony that luck—both bad and good—plays a central role in their lives.  I hope readers will laugh out loud, cry now and then, and fall in love with the central characters, who are full of vitality and still maintain a positive, if somewhat gimlet-eyed, outlook despite the many tragedies they have endured.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A novel about a community of Holocaust survivors in the 1960s and 1970s, which has to deal with the American equivalent of a pogrom: a planned freeway that will tear their neighbourhood apart.  Right now, like The Mathematician’s Shiva, it’s a comedy.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott


Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.




In the past 150 years, literature about the Civil War has piled up deep as stacks of corpses at Antietam.  You think you've read everything there was to know about that four-year struggle?  Think again.  Karen Abbott's Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is a fresh cannonball shot across the book-littered battlefield.  The trailer for the new book by the author of American Rose and Sin in the Second City comes at us fast and furious (an earnest Ms. Abbott has a lot to say in just 90 seconds), so let me slow it down a notch with this info from the publisher's website:
After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.
Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, had this to say about Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: "With this book, Karen Abbott declares herself the John le Carré of Civil War espionage, with the added benefit that the saga she tells is all true and beautifully researched.  Her four protagonists, exuding charm, adept at skulduggery, take us on a sweeping and bloody jaunt across the Civil War landscape, into an intimate realm of warfare that will yield for even the most hard-core Civil War buff a wholly fresh perspective on those deadly days."  For a taste of what Larson was talking about, here are a couple of sample paragraphs from the opening of the book:
      In the town of Martinsburg on the lower tip of the Valley, a seventeen-year-old rebel named Belle Boyd sat by the windows of her wood-frame home, waiting for the war to come to her. It was July 4 and the war was still new, only two and a half months old, but Belle—known by one young rival as “the fastest girl in Virginia or anywhere else for that matter”—had long been accustomed to things operating on her schedule, and at her whim.
      She tracked the progress of Union forces as they stormed down from the North, all those boys sweating and filthy under blue wool coats, lean as the rifles slung at their sides—nearly fifteen thousand of them, a few as young as thirteen, away from their mothers for the very first time. She felt they had no respect at all, waving American flags with the stars of thirty-four states when eleven no longer belonged. Two days prior, on July 2, about thirty-five hundred of them crossed the Potomac, slipped through a gap in the Blue Ridge mountains, and trampled across the lush sprawl of the Shenandoah Valley to face the Southern army at Falling Waters—a “romantic spot,” in Belle’s opinion, eight miles from her home. There Confederate colonel Thomas Jackson was waiting with four cannon and 380 boys of his own. When the rebels retreated, they left the field scattered over with blankets and canteens and, most regrettably to Belle, only twenty-one Yankee wounded and three Yankee dead.
As you can see in the book's trailer, Karen Abbott is an enthusiastic, energetic promoter of her work.  I recently discovered the Wonders & Marvels blog ("The Sex Life of Dogs in the 18th Century," anyone?), which has been featuring Abbott's book in their weekly email newsletters.  These dispatches arrive in my inbox packed like a picnic basket with extra goodies which only enhance the flavor of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy.  If you are at all interested in the Civil War, spy thrillers or writing that flies at you like cannonballs, you should subscribe.


Monday, August 18, 2014

My First Time: Trevor D. Richardson


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Trevor D. Richardson, the founder and editor of The Subtopian.  He is the author of American Bastards, Honeysuckle & Irony, and Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files from Montag Press.  A West Coast man by birth, Trevor was brought up in Texas and has since ventured back west and put down roots in Portland, Oregon.  He has devoted his writing career to helping others find success by forming friendships and working relationships with other writers and artists.  Trevor has written numerous short stories published in a variety of magazines including Word Riot, Underground Voices, and a science fiction anthology called Doomology: The Dawning of Disasters.


My First Publishing Adventure

I was seven years old the first time I tried to write.  My father had recovered an old Macintosh computer from his custodian job at the local school and brought it home for the kids to mess around on.  It was one of those early models with the green screen and the old floppy disks.  I sat down at the keys and began my fledgling attempt, a story about a prince in a medieval kingdom hunting the werewolf that killed his betrothed.  The idea was the prince himself was the wolf and didn’t know it, but I didn’t get past chapter three.  I looked over my work a few days later and thought, “This is just bad writing.”

Years later I would realize the significance of this moment.  Today it seems like I’ve been experiencing it, as if in some Sisyphean loop, ever since.

But that’s not precisely what I want to talk about.  My first time publishing a novel is a much more relevant story for the young writer, but I started with the failed werewolf book to make a point: writing is the easy part.  Anyone can write badly.  A fairly decent cross-section of the population can write well.  Anyone can publish now, thanks to all the new technologies and online tools, but only a handful can publish a book and make it succeed.  I say “make” it succeed rather than “watch” it succeed because that is the number one myth we need to dispel as young writers: we come up with this starry-eyed fantasy that the book will get published and that will be the end of all our troubles, our insufficient funds in our bank accounts, our day jobs we hate, or our tireless, endless efforts.

It’s not true.

You live as a writer, consumed by telling your story, then you publish it and you have to live as a salesman, a shameless promoter like the iconic fight jockeys of boxing flicks.   Not all of us can do that.  I couldn’t my first time out.

After high school, I tried college, got into some pointless, pedantic debate with a professor about art and wound up throwing away my text books and driving off into the sunset.  I continued to do this for many years: living somewhere and leaving unceremoniously to go to the next place.  The only constant, my only true love, was my first novel, American Bastards, a story about all of the things I was feeling about myself, my generation, and my country as a twenty-year-old.  In 2010, I moved to Portland, Oregon.  A year later, after a job interview at a publishing company called Inkwater Press that I was completely unqualified for, I had my foot in the door to have someone read my book.  They agreed and it was published some months later.  I was still young and naïve, thoughtlessly plowing ahead because I heard the word “publish.”  I didn't consider the ramifications of what this agreement was going to mean for me or my career.

Inkwater was nothing but kind to me, but they were what some call a “vanity press.”  Which is a somewhat dated term for “they make the author cover all the expenses of publishing, including their own profits.”  I spent thousands to get American Bastards into print.  I was on a payment plan for months, driving over to their offices and handing them a sizeable percentage of my meager paycheck until the sum was paid off.  No book would be produced until the costs were paid in full, so I scrimped and saved and starved myself to get it paid as soon as humanly possible.  Along the way, we designed a book.  The novel was set in an alternate reality, a kind of Wonderland inside a classic rock radio station, and a single road connected all the mythic towns and locales: Highway Zero.

I knew the cover needed to be the Highway Zero sign.  I also knew I wanted a photograph, not a drawing or a Photoshop image, so I built the sign myself from a sheet of metal, crackle paint, black and white spray paint, rust texture, and added a few fake bulletholes with my drill for good measure.  It came out great and my girlfriend, Erin, now my wife, drove out to eastern Oregon with me to find a desert landscape for my picture.  After the three-hour drive, I realized, too late, I had forgotten a post for the sign.  Racing the sun, we drove up and down a farm road looking for something to use and I, perhaps shamefully, found a lone metal post at the end of someone’s driveway which I promptly tore from the earth and fled.

We got the shot and it was used for the cover of my first book.  The editing process was miniscule and, in spite of paying per word to have the job done, I realized after the fact that they essentially just ran it through MS Word spell check.  I had this idea of working side-by-side with an objective, creative person and eventually perfecting my brainchild of the past five years.  That, however, would have cost extra and I was already struggling to pay.

The cover design came out pretty well, however, now that I have had some experience in graphic design and typography, I realize that the only thing right about it was the picture.  The text was just slightly not right.  However, in spite of many set backs, a lot of money, and a lot of learning as I went, we got the book out and I was thrilled to see my baby on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  It felt like a victory.

As far as my publisher was concerned, unless I wanted to spend $70 per hour to have them promote it, their work was through.  I was on my own.  Bumbling into the world of self-promotion, a young writer who knew none of the rules, I quickly encountered some issues I hadn’t anticipated.

First of all, there are different levels of “real” when it comes to a book.  A traditionally-published novel, in the eyes of booksellers and reviewers, is more legit than a self-published book.  A self-published book and a book from a vanity press are pretty much the same thing, except you spend more money going the vanity press route.

My first reaction was that it all felt kind of snobby.  Who cares where the book comes from?   Shouldn’t it matter if it’s actually good?  This “shades of reality” in the origin of a book continued to haunt me as I encountered my next issue.

If books aren’t returnable, booksellers are not likely to buy them—due to financial reasons.  I didn’t know about returning books; it never came up in conversation with my publisher.  This was a crushing blow to my odds of success.

There was also a level of resistance to accepting print-on-demand books.  This is an attitude that still exists today, though it is slowly diminishing.  To my mind, POD just seemed like a logical, efficient way of handling book production.  No money wasted on warehousing stacks of books, no leftover books that didn’t sell cluttering up some office or apartment.  It just made sense.  But the book people out there did not see it that way.  It felt like trying to get a foodie to order McDonald’s.  I recall making that connection and suddenly feeling like my novel was nothing more than fast-food caliber.

In time, after only a handful of reviews and a lot of “sorry we don’t read PODs,” I gave up.  I had run out of money, time, and energy and really just wanted to write something new.  I told myself that this had been a learning experience.  Then I asked myself, what had I learned?

The main thing I found myself thinking about was the image of that kid, looking at his incomplete werewolf book, saying it was bad writing.  I thought that the biggest fault of self-publishing is the same issue with other aspects of the internet.  “No editor” means no checks and balances, no filter.  A lot of young writers have the same refrain when they get rejected, “It’s the industry, man, people just aren't ready for something edgy or original.”

Sometimes that’s true.  Most of the time, however, it’s just the editor politely telling you your werewolf book is just bad writing.  My next thought is that maybe the market—the big, bad, impossible market—is also that little kid deciding what’s good.  Maybe self-published books, some of them, don’t go far in indie sales for the same reason larger publishers and agents take a pass.  They’re just not up to snuff.  I asked myself the hardest question of my entire life.  Was American Bastards just not good enough?  Whether the answer was yes or no, the result was the same.  It was time to write something else.

There were a lot of other revelations from my first publishing experience.  I learned that, for a fraction of the cost, I could have started my own publishing company and put the book out myself.  I learned that if I was going to start making books, I would make sure they were always returnable so I—and other writers I published—could have a shot at getting their work into stores.  I had learned a little about distribution, a lot about who to contact for reviews and who to skip.  Most important of all, I had learned, by necessity, how to edit better, how to design images, how to edit photos in Photoshop, and so much more.

Coming up as a writer, my constant rejection had a particular phrase that I heard again and again in some variation, “You have talent, but you aren’t marketable.”  In a moment of clarity and frustration, looking at everything that had just happened to me, I said, “Forget their market then, I’ll go make my own.”

I decided to start my own literary magazine.  I would make it my goal to build relationships with writers, learning their stories, their needs, and their ambitions.  Personalizing those goals, I would do everything in my power to help them become real.  I partnered with a local writer, Kirby Light, and created The Subtopian magazine.  We spent a year building our following and getting our footing.  I honed my skills as an editor and a designer.  Then I launched Subtopian Press.  I got started with Lightning Source as my printer and distributor because of their affiliation with Ingram, one of the leading sources of book ordering for stores and online retailers, and I published Kirby’s collection of short stories and poems, Some Kind of Monster.  Then I reacquired the rights to American Bastards.

It was mine again, finally.  I worked with an old friend, someone who had inspired a main character in the book, and we made a new cover.  He gave me illustrations for the chapter headings.  I got the book set to a reasonable price, relaunched with retailers, set to “returnable” for the book stores.  I did all of these things and it didn’t even cost me more than $300—ten times less than what I spent at Inkwater.

In the end, I had moved on as a writer and didn’t care about pursuing much with my first book, but I had it, it was under my own roof again, and I take it with me to readings and book events.  I smile at it when I see it on The Subtopian’s website.  Today, I have just published my third novel with a real publisher out of California, Montag Press, and I got to have that mythic, side-by-side experience of reworking my novel, Dystopia Boy, with a talented, objective person.  It was a wonderful experience, but a hard, long road to get here.

The moral of the story: if you are thinking about giving money to someone else to publish a book, consider just spending that money on yourself.  You likely will spend less and gain more because your investor, you, will actually care about what happens to the book.  Above all, be the first person to honestly ask if the writing is actually good.  If you don’t, someone else will, and bypassing the editors to self-publish may not save you.  It might just be the readers that say, “This is just bad writing.”


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Sentence: My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


America, vast and laid out from one ocean to another, is not a large enough space to contain the war each soldier brings home.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Air a Library: A Pre-Sunday Sentence from All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


This post contains spoilers for those who haven't read All the Light We Cannot See.  You've been warned.

I considered saving this selection from Anthony Doerr's novel, All the Light We Cannot See, for tomorrow's Sunday Sentence, but decided against that because:

      a)  It's a long paragraph full of more than one sentence;
      b)  I already have a good candidate for this week's SS.

As you already know, All the Light We Cannot See is one of my favorite books of the year--a novel which I savored slowly and finished, with a sigh and a smile, a few days ago.  For three weeks, I lived in Saint-Malo, in Paris, in the barracks at a Nazi Youth training camp, in the bomb-rubble beneath L'hotel des Abeilles (the Hotel of Bees).  I watched a blind 13-year-old girl named Marie-Laure and her great-uncle Etienne build a secret passageway behind a wardrobe in order to keep the giant radio transmitter in their attic hidden from invading Germans.  I was there with young Walter Pfennig as he was recruited to join the Nazi party--initially dazzled by patriotism, but then increasingly disillusioned.  I watched, breath-held, as Doerr gradually brought the two teenagers together, bound by the sound of Marie-Laure's voice on the radio reading passages from Jules Verne's Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  And then, in the final pages of the novel, I came across this incredibly beautiful paragraph which is set in 2014--decades after the main action of the plot--when Marie-Laure is an old woman taking a walk in Paris with her grandson Michel.

Saint-Malo
Before I get to the "sentence," however, here's a little background on Doerr's original inspiration for All the Light We Cannot See, a novel which is built on the magical mystery of electrons carrying noise particles through our atmosphere:
In 2004, I came up to New York City, went into Penn Station, and the man in front of me started complaining about the reception on his cell phone. We're eighty feet underground, he's bashing on his little device, and I'm thinking, "What you're forgetting, mister, is that this is a beautiful miracle--you're talking to somebody very far away with this little transmitter and this little receiver in this device, and all around us this electromagnetic radiation is carrying messages. And that's kind of an amazing thing." So when I started this book, I wanted to capture the magic of hearing the voice of a stranger in a little device in your home. Because for the history of humanity, that was a strange thing. I started with a boy trapped somewhere and a girl reading a story to him over a radio.
And now here's that paragraph which comes as a linguistic crescendo at the end of the novel....

People walk the paths of the gardens below, and the wind sings anthems in the hedges, and the big old cedars at the entrance to the maze creak.  Marie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves traveling into and out of Michel’s machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more crisscross the air than when he lived—maybe a million times more.  Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programs, of e-mail, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in them, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to earth again, I’m going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avocados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations.  And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths?  That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings?  That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough?  They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Waiting for the Apocalypse: Outtakes from my interview with Malcolm Brooks (Painted Horses)


My interview with Malcolm Brooks is up over at The Barnes & Noble Review and I encourage you to go over there and read what he has to say about writing, busting the myths of western literature, and being inspired by the U.S. Army's last horse cavalry unit.


Here's part of what I wrote by way of introduction to Malcolm and Painted Horses:
      It comes as little surprise to learn that Lonesome Dove is a seminal literary influence in Malcolm Brooks’s life. Reading his debut novel, Painted Horses, you’ll hear the voice of Larry McMurtry, as well as echoes of Jim Harrison, Wallace Stegner, and that old go-to, Cormac McCarthy. But make no mistake, Malcolm Brooks stands on his own without leaning on the crutches of those other seasoned writers. Painted Horses — which is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a No. 1 Indie Next Pick for August — is unlike any “western” I’ve read; it refreshes the genre while nodding back at its roots.
      Set in Montana in the mid-1950s, the novel presents us with an American West on the cusp of change. Catherine Lemay is a young archaeologist hired to survey a canyon in advance of a major dam project; her job is to make sure nothing of historic value will be lost in the coming flood. The task proves to be more complicated than she thought — especially after she meets John H, a mustanger and a veteran of the U.S. Army’s last mounted cavalry campaign, who’s been living a fugitive life in the canyon. Together, the two race against time to save the past before it is destroyed by an industry with an eye on the future.
As with any published interview, there were some good snippets of conversation which didn't make the final cut.  Today, I thought I'd randomly pick a few of those scraps up off the cutting-room floor and share them with you here at The Quivering Pen:

From the very first scene of Painted Horses, you introduce some complex ideas about progress versus the dying ways of the past--you have Catherine riding a train into Montana and looking out the window at an "utterly alien species" racing alongside.  You write: "[She had] anticipated the general vista of a cowboy movie.  Red mesas and towering sandstone spires.  Minuscule horsemen galloping."  Where do you place Catherine, the archaeologist, along this historical timeline?

Life is paradox, and I believe we’re all creatures of supreme duality.  Catherine struggles constantly with the expectations and sort of soulless strictures of a hard science, and conforming to those as a function of professionalism, while in her heart remaining utterly seduced by the mystery and magic and beauty of buried remnants.  Part of her wants to be Mr. Spock, but at heart she’s a Romantic poet.

Malcolm Brooks on book tour at Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana
(and, yes, there was more than just one person in the audience that night)

For me, some of the most startling and, frankly, distressing scenes were the ones involving blatant male chauvinism.  As a man, were these scenes hard for you to write?

They weren’t hard for me to write at all.  I come out of an extremely conservative evangelical subculture, and have worked in the building trades for more than two decades.  I’ve heard it all, and it’s basic mimicry.  I’ve also had the great pleasure of knowing and associating with more than a few passionate, driven, accomplished women, none of whom let something as toothless as male bluster or condescension stop them.

What brought you to Montana?

A couple of things, really.  I had this mythical sense of the state from the time I was a little kid.  I was a huge fan of westerns and horses and all of that.  It’s part of my core identity.  Montana was this mythical place for me and it was solidified when I read Lonesome Dove.  And then I read A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall before I ever moved here.  I knew the University of Montana had a great MFA program and that Missoula was a writer-centric place.  When I went to finish my English degree, I thought, That’s where I want to go.  I like to fly-fish, too.  So this is where I wound up when I was 24.  I’d worked for my dad for six years out of high school.  Then I moved around to Phoenix, northeastern Oregon, and in the early 90s I was up in Kalispell (Montana), working on a house-building crew for six months.  I’d lived in various places, but always wound up going back home to California again and just putting on the tool belt and working some more for my dad.  My father was a carpenter most of his life—he joined his first union when he was nineteen.  He was the kind of guy where if he needed more people on a concrete pour when I was in high school, I wouldn’t go to school that day.  It taught me there’s more than one way to get an education.

Malcolm Brooks on the job in Missoula, Montana

You mentioned your family was pretty strict in the religious sense.

My parents went from being long-hair, pseudo-counter-culture people to where my dad’s hair was cut into a high-and-tight and he was a 28-year-old deacon.  My father had been raised in the New Jersey foster care system and the primary foster parent he had at a formative time was a preacher.  So he always had a real sense for Christianity, that was his default setting.  Once they had kids, my parents just went way into religion.  It wasn’t mainline Christianity; it was a Baptist sect that was kind of cult-y, out of a Southern Baptist tradition—the crazy ones that were off burning Beatles records because of some off-hand comment John Lennon made.  That Beatles thing happened about six years before my parents went all total-immersion into it.  They got with this pretty intense Baptist church.  The nadir—or apogee, depending on how you want to look at it—came when someone predicted the Second Coming of Christ, based on mathematics and Biblical prophecy.  The church we were going to had totally fallen for this.  It was going to be X Day at X Time in 1980.  On that day, we stood around in the back yard at the appointed time and held hands in a circle and waited for the Second Coming.

Were you snickering or rolling your eyes at the whole thing?

At the time, no—I totally bought into it.  I was nine years old and I’d been completed immersed in this whole subculture from the time I was three years old.  I didn’t know any different.  To me, that was reality.  We were totally sheltered.  Part of the reason why I’m such a sponge for pop culture today is because my brothers and I were totally kept from it.  We lived in this little sensory-deprivation chamber.

Before the big conversion moment with my parents—back when they were still living a somewhat normal life—my dad had a massive record collection—he was a huge Beatles fan, along with The Doors and Blood, Sweat and Tears.  When I was really little, my mom said she would put me on a hobby horse—you know, the kind with the springs on it—in front of my dad’s huge stereo system, which included a reel-to-reel tape player, and she’d put on a Doors album.  While she was doing her thing cleaning the house, I’d be in front of this huge speaker on a hobby horse.

You were on horses even way back then.

Yeah, exactly.  I think all that music got fixed in my psyche somehow.  Later, when my parents joined the church, they did a cleansing and all those records went away—but my father kept them, he had them boxed up in the basement.  I think he really missed the music…because when Bob Dylan converted to Christianity, the first thing my dad did was rush out and buy Slow Train Coming and I can remember sitting in a rocking chair listening to that album, which was real rock-n-roll which also had a message behind it.

Can you pinpoint when you broke free of all that religious conservatism?

I think the moment that the Second Coming didn’t happen was the first chink in the armor.  I wasn’t quite sure how to process it.  A year after that, when I was 10, my parents packed up and moved across the country from New Jersey to Southern California and in retrospect, I think that was a wake-up call for them, too—that maybe they were immersed in something to a degree that they didn’t need to be. We found a church in California, but it was much less cloistered and much less of a total-control type of church.

I was always writing back then—westerns or English-style mysteries.  I had an escapist streak as a kid.  I remember reading The Winds of War in the eighth grade because the mini-series was on TV—oh, that's another story.  My parents didn’t have a TV for years.  Right around the time when I was 11 or 12, I think my dad wanted to watch the World Series, so my parents knuckled down and bought a TV set.  The only way you could get reception was if you had cable.  So we went from nothing to everything.  Both my parents were working at that time, so my whole equation shifted.  I was in the perfect place at the perfect time because I was a total sponge for things like Hitchcock films and Marilyn Monroe and all kinds of stuff.  I just absorbed it and fast.  My parents and I sat and watched The Winds of War together.  I think they must have probably been missing some stimulation themselves, and they probably rationalized letting us watch TV it by saying it was historical and it had to do with wars and stuff.  So then I got the book and I read it.  But I was also reading Louis L’Amour westerns and Agatha Christie mysteries.

I was in Christian schools all the way up until I was in eighth grade.  So eighth grade was the first time I was in a public school….and that’s when my English teacher gave me Lonesome Dove.  She gave it to me at the end of June as an eighth-grade graduation gift.  She called my house and told my mom, “Look, I know this is an adult novel, and it’s not written for children but your son is not a child as a reader and I think this book will change his life.”   And she was right.


Friday Freebie: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton


Congratulations to Yvonne Jefferson, winner of last week's Friday Freebie contest: a signed copy of Malcolm Brooks' debut novel Painted Horses.

This week's book giveaway is The Miniaturist, a new novel by Jessie Burton.  You may have seen the book highlighted earlier this week here at The Quivering Pen's monthly Front Porch Books feature--where you can also find a plot summary and an excerpt from the debut novel by the London-based author/ actress.  Here's a little more about Burton's path to publication, lifted from her website:
Over the past 7 years I’ve worked as an actress and an executive assistant in the City. While doing that, secretly--or not, if I didn't minimise the Word screen quickly enough--I wrote a novel. It's called The Miniaturist, and it's set in Amsterdam in 1686. It focuses on two women’s very different journeys to find a slice of freedom in a repressive, judgmental society. There’s a trial, a hidden love, a miniaturist who predicts the fate of her customers, a parakeet called Peebo and a plan to escape to the sea. It’s going to be published by Picador in the UK in July 2014, and by Harper Collins in the USA and Canada, as well as in 29 other languages, from Korean to Hungarian, Portuguese to Polish, Catalan to Japanese. I am delighted. To put it mildly....My image research for the book is on Pinterest, containing source material and photos I took in Amsterdam.

Burton posing in front of a replica of the UK cover
In this Q&A, Jessie Burton explains more about the inspiration behind the book:
I was visiting Amsterdam when I came upon this dolls' house in the Rijksmuseum. It had been built in 1686 and was a thing of true decorative beauty. The owner was a woman called Petronella Oortman, who had commissioned it as an exact replica of her own townhouse in the heart of the city. She had spent as much money on it as you might on a real house, and miniature pieces had been made for its interior as far away as Japan and China. I was so curious as to why she would miniaturise her existence, why she would purchase food she couldn't eat and chairs she couldn't sit on...and then there was the city of Amsterdam and its history. A place of trade and power, contradictions of outward modesty and bursting inward pomp--and the dolls' house was a perfect symbol of this, of the need for secrets, for control, for domestic harmony that covered over inner chaos....This book is set in 1686 because the real Petronella Oortman had a dolls' house commissioned for her in 1686. I wanted to honour that time, and yet I did not want to be a slave to it. Part of my intention was an impressionistic offering to the reader of what life might have been like then, certainly not to smother them with a drab historical recreation. I was as diligent as it was possible to be--and it was fascinating to discover the social habits, the food, the clothing, the grieving processes, the feasting--and then to realise, in many ways it was not so long ago, and love, and pain were very much experienced the same as they are now.

If you’d like a chance at winning a new hardback copy of The Miniaturist, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Aug. 21, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 22.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Front Porch Books: August 2014 edition


Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (Ecco):  Maybe it’s because I’m just emerging from the depths of Anthony Doerr’s mesmerizing novel All the Light We Cannot See, in which miniature models of two French cities (Paris and Saint-Malo) figure prominently, but ant-scale versions of urban areas fascinate me.  Then again, maybe it’s the notion of being able to hover like God over these small worlds that draws me closer.  Whatever the reason, Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist makes me want to shrink down and really get inside this novel.   That fantastic cover design goes a long way toward hooking me, too.  Here’s the Jacket Copy:
On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin. But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways. Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand—and fear—the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation...or the architect of their destruction?
Check out these atmospheric Opening Lines:
      The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends. But words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot, and the church’s east corner is crowded. She watches the scene unfold from the safety of the choir stall, as guildsmen and their wives approach the gaping grave like ants toward the honey. Soon, they are joined by VOC clerks and ship’s captains, regentesses, pastry-makers – and him, still wearing that broad-brimmed hat. She tries to pity him. Pity, unlike hate, can be boxed and put away.
      The church’s painted roof – the one thing the reformers didn’t pull down – rises above them like the tipped-up hull of a magnificent ship. It is a mirror to the city’s soul; inked on its ancient beams, Christ in judgement holds his sword and lily, a golden cargo breaks the waves, the Virgin rests on a crescent moon. Flipping up the old misericord beside her, her fingers flutter on the proverb of exposed wood. It is a relief of a man shitting a bag of coins, a leer of pain chipped across his face. What’s changed? she thinks.
      And yet.
      Even the dead are in attendance today, grave-slabs hiding body on body, bones on dust, stacked up beneath the mourners’ feet. Below that floor are women’s jaws, a merchant’s pelvis, the hollow ribs of a fat grandee. There are little corpses down there, some no longer than a loaf of bread. Noting how people shift their eyes from such condensed sadness, how they move from any tiny slab they see, she cannot blame them.

I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy (Doubleday):  Novels narrated by precocious young girls are as old as mockingbirds, but Jennifer Murphy’s debut somehow feels fresh right from the Opening Lines:
      The rumors started before my daddy’s body got cold. I’d made my peace with the lies by then—lies I’ve learned are a necessary evil—and, being from the South, I’m used to cloying (that means sickeningly sweet) smiles, but I hadn’t figured on the sideways glances, hushed talk, loud silence. Feigned ignorance. I mean someone’s dying had always made the front page of the Hollyville Herald. Even Mrs. Morgan’s twenty-year-old cat got a paragraph, but not my daddy. The particulars of Oliver Lane’s funeral were tucked in the ad section between an upcoming gun show, an irony I’m sure was lost on the editor, and a JESUS LOVES YOU, standard filler for slow news days. Thankfully there was no mention of murder, or of the fact that the police suspected Mama or one of those other two ladies. It wouldn’t be polite to put such things in writing.
      My name is Picasso, like the artist. Mama said she named me Picasso because he painted about truth, but I think Mama misinterpreted his words. What Pablo Picasso said was this: Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. What I think he meant is that great art is born from skillful lying, and something else, something much more profound, that lying is okay as long as its end goal is altruistic. Well that’s how I read it anyway, and that’s how I’ve been able to justify what happened that day.
“What happened that day” is at the heart of I Love You More, one of the more intriguing books to land on my front porch this month.  Here’s the Jacket Copy:
One man, three wives, the perfect murder. A scintillating novel of betrayal and conspiracy. Picasso Lane is twelve years old when her father, Oliver, is murdered at their summer beach house. Her mother, Diana, is the primary suspect—until the police discover his second wife, and then his third. The women say they have never met—but Picasso knows otherwise. Picasso remembers the morning beautiful Jewels showed up at their house, carrying the same purse as her mother, and a family portrait featuring her father with two strange boys. Picasso remembers lifting the phone, listening to late night calls with Bert, a woman heavily pregnant with Oliver's fourth child. As the police circle and a detective named Kyle Kennedy becomes a regular fixture in their home, Picasso tries to make sense of her father's death, the depth of his deceit, and the secrets that bind these three women. Cunningly paced and plotted, I Love You More is a riveting novel of misplaced loyalty, jealousy, and revenge.
Blurbworthiness:  “When I really, truly love a book, I feel a kind of deep excitement-envy-admiration that verges on awe.  My requirements: the story must make me forget everything but it, and the writing must be lean, evocative, and powerful.  I Love You More is all of these things.  I really, truly love it so much that I wish I’d written it myself.  In its pages, Jennifer Murphy deftly balances light and dark, humanity and heartlessness, love and murder, and creates characters so well drawn you feel as if you know them, as well as a mystery so compelling you can barely look away from the page.”  (Jennifer Niven, author of American Blonde)


Ordinary Sins by Jim Heynen (Milkweed Editions):  My advance copy of Jim Heynen’s story collection is a thin book—no thicker than saltine cracker, really—but it is fat with characters.  We meet these people in 47 stories spread across 96 pages.  You do the math.  At that rate, Heynen better be a pretty damned good writer to put flesh on the bones of one character before moving on to the next.  From what little I’ve sampled from the book, I’d say he succeeds more than he fails.  Several of the titles begin with “Who,” a silent “The Man” or “The Woman” preceding it: “Who Jingled His Change,” “Who Loved Her Dog,” “Who Didn’t Like to Have People Watch Him Eat,” “Who Talked to His Bees,” etc. We also meet “The Hoarder,” “The Hardware Store Man,” “The Checkout Clerk,” “The Couple That Never Fought,” and “The Lepidopterist,” whose Opening Lines are:
He had an eye for the detailed web in the clearwings and for the colors in the brimstones and sulphurs. He admired the excited movement in the flashers and skippers, and savored the sweet diversity of the fritillaries, the leafwings, and the metalmarks.
I also like the way the short-short story “The Chapstick Guy” opens:
For some reason this man wore so much chapstick on his lips that if he fell on his face he’d leave a skid mark like a slug. Nobody ever commented about it, even though his lips slid around so much when he talked that you’d think he was trying to invent a new language for romance.
There, I’ve already given you half of this piece of flash fiction.  You’ll need to buy the book to find out what happens to The Chapstick Guy.  Along with fresh, inventive fiction, Ordinary Sins features drawings by Tom Pohrt.  Blurbworthiness:  “Ordinary Sins gives you people-watching in book form.  Each eccentric in this pantheon is a magnet for your gaze, their excesses fascinating, exasperating, bizarre—then suddenly familiar.  ‘Hey, I have relatives like these characters!’  And eventually you will see yourself, recognize your quirks, and thanks to Jim Heynen’s portraits of us all, you may forgive yourself.  Why be human if you can’t be odd in your own glorious way?  This is a book to revel in.”  (Kim Stafford, author of The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft)


Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly (Grove):  Fans of Paula Daly’s debut novel What Kind of a Mother Are You? will definitely want to get in line for this new book, a tense marital thriller that has shades of Diabolique and Single White Female.  Here’s the Jacket Copy, which is sure to unnerve even the happiest of marriages:
Natty and Sean Wainwright have a rock-solid marriage—with two teenage daughters, a successful hotel business, and a beautiful house, they are a model family. When their younger daughter falls gravely ill on a school trip to France, Natty rushes to her side. Luckily, Natty’s best friend from college, Eve Dalladay, is visiting and offers to stay with Sean to lend a hand in the Wainwright household. But Natty returns home to find that Eve has taken to family life a little too well: Sean has fallen in love with her. With no choice but to put on a brave face for the children, Natty attempts to start anew—yet no matter how hard she tries to set herself upright, Eve is there to knock her down again. Then Natty receives a mysterious note that says Eve has done this before—more than once—and the consequences were fatal. On a mission to reveal Eve as a vindictive serial mistress, Natty must navigate through a treacherous maze of secrets and lies that threatens her life and the safety of her loved ones.
Are you nervously twisting your wedding band around your ring finger yet?  Here’s some Blurbworthiness to seal the deal:  “The suspense, dread and paranoia intensify with each page.  Paula Daly explores what happens when a serpent invades the family nest, twisting truth into lies and illuminating our deepest fears.  A novel that explores the power of family, love and betrayal, and what lengths we will go to keep our loved ones safe.”  (Denise Hamilton, author of Damage Control)


The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese):  There are some authors whose new novels I will buy before the last syllable of their name leaves a bookseller’s lips: Richard Ford, John Irving, Alice McDermott, Benjamin Percy, and Shari Holman, to name just a few.  Add Ian McEwan to the list.  Starting with Atonement, I have been a die-hard fan.  So, it was with heart-flutters of joy that I received his newest release, The Children Act, which is due out next month.  Turning to the Opening Lines, I was struck by the Dickensian Bleak House homage:
London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather. Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, at home on Sunday evening, supine on a chaise lounge, staring past her stockinged feet toward the end of the room, toward a partial view of recessed bookshelves by the fireplace and, to one side, by a tall window, a tiny Renoir lithograph of a bather, bought by her thirty years ago for fifty pounds. Probably a fake. Below it, centered on a round walnut table, a blue vase. No memory of how she came by it. Nor when she last put flowers in it. The fireplace not lit in a year. Blackened raindrops falling irregularly into the grate with a ticking sound against balled-up yellowing newsprint. A Bokhara rug spread on wide polished floorboards. Looming at the edge of vision, a baby grand piano bearing silver-framed family photos on its deep black shine. On the floor by the chaise lounge, within her reach, the draft of a judgment. And Fiona was on her back, wishing all this stuff at the bottom of the sea.
I don’t know about you, but I can really feel that room and hear those raindrops.  Here’s the Jacket Copy to convince the unconvinced:
Fiona Maye is a leading High Court judge who presides over cases in the family court. She is renowned for her fierce intelligence, exactitude, and sensitivity. But her professional success belies private sorrow and domestic strife. There is the lingering regret of her childlessness, and now her marriage of thirty years is in crisis. At the same time, she is called on to try an urgent case: Adam, a beautiful seventeen-year-old boy, is refusing for religious reasons the medical treatment that could save his life, and his devout parents echo his wishes. Time is running out. Should the secular court overrule sincerely expressed faith? In the course of reaching a decision, Fiona visits Adam in the hospital—and encounter that stirs long-buried feelings in her and powerful new emotions in the boy. Her judgment has momentous consequences for them both.

See How Small by Scott Blackwood (Little, Brown):  Judging by its Opening Lines, I suspect See How Small is going to be an emotionally-rough book to read:
      We have always lived here, though we pretend we’ve just arrived. That’s the trick, to make forgetful shapes with your mouth so everything feels new and unremembered. But after a while we slip up. A careless word, an uninvited smell, a tip of the tongue taste of something sweet, makes the room suddenly familiar—and we have to begin again. Like startled infants, we look to your face to tell us what comes next. You came into the fire.
      Take off your clothes, the men with guns said.
      Please, we said.
      Now, they said.
      Please let us go, we said. We won’t tell anyone.
      Not anyone? They smiled with their guns.
      Not anyone, we said. Please.
      Our jeans and boots and jackets and shirts were piled high in the middle of the floor, like a breaking wave.
      The tile was cold under our feet.
      Across the room, the stainless steel ice cream case gleamed. On the floor beside it, the cash register drawer sprawled on its side.
The narrators of that first chapter are three teenage girls who (no spoiler here) are murdered in a rather brutal fashion.  Though you might think this is a novel told by ghosts (a la The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold or The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan), Blackwood soon moves his narrative, like a roving camera, to other members of the small town so we get a chorus of voices filling us in on what happened in that ice cream parlor.  Hard as it may be, I really can’t wait to read this heartbreaking novel.  Blurbworthiness:  “Horrible deaths of the innocent, and the various means and tactics by which the living manage to go on in the aftermath of unsolved horror, form the heart of Scott Blackwood’s haunted and haunting novel, See How Small.  His prose is crisp and his narrative approach is fresh and inventive, calmly pushing forward, with characters rendered so convincingly you think about sending cards of condolence or calling with advice on the investigation.”  (Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone and The Maid’s Version)


Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (Europa Editions):  Europa’s cover design for Damon Galgut’s third novel could be a frame from a Merchant-Ivory film.  That wouldn’t be too far off, actually, since Arctic Summer is a fictionalized biography of E. M. Forster whose novels A Room With a View, Maurice and Howards End Ismail Merchant and James Ivory put before the camera.  I don’t know much about Forster (haven’t read his books, though I’ve seen some of the movie versions), so I’m especially interested to read Galgut’s treatment of his life.  Here’s the Jacket Copy:
Damon Galgut's third novel, a fictionalized biography of English author E. M. Forster, focuses on Forster's many years in India and the process of writing his masterpiece, A Passage to India. This compact, finely wrought novel also addresses Forster's unforgiving childhood in England and the homosexuality he feared and repressed throughout his life. Psychologically acute without being sentimental, Forster's relationships are described with compassion and great care. Galgut is a master at constructing strange, compelling landscapes, and Arctic Summer shifts seamlessly between staid, restricting England and Cairo and vibrant, pleasantly, absurd India. Moments of gentle humor shine through the sparse prose, lending Forster a humanity that makes his story all the more heartbreaking.
Even the Opening Lines have a formality that seems to be in line with something Forster himself would write:
In October of 1912, the SS City of Birmingham was travelling through the Red Sea, midway on her journey to India, when two men found themselves together on the forward deck. Each had come there separately, hoping to escape a concert that some of the other passengers were organising, but they were slightly acquainted by now and not unhappy to have company. It was the middle of the afternoon. They were sitting in a spot that offered sun and shade, as well as seclusion from the wind. Both carried books with them, which they politely set aside when they began to speak.
Blurbworthiness:  “In describing these adventures and encounters, as well as meetings with Edward Carpenter and others, Galgut has so seamlessly incorporated Forster’s diaries, letters and novels into his narrative that it is often hard to tell which novelist is which.”  (The Telegraph)


If Not For This by Pete Fromm (Red Hen Press):  Just as I will stand in a long, out-the-door-and-around-the-corner line to buy a new Ian McEwan novel, any time a fresh Fromm hits the bookstore shelves, I’m there.  In this case, I happened to be at Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana for a reading by fellow Big Sky novelist Malcolm Brooks when I spied the woman on the cover of If Not For This floating past me.  Snatch and grab.  This new novel, set partially in my home state of Wyoming, looks especially good.  Exhibit A: the Jacket Copy:
After meeting at a boatman’s bash on the Snake River, river runners Maddy and Dalt embark on a lifelong love affair. They marry on the banks of the Buffalo Fork, sure they’ll live there the rest of their days. Forced by the economics of tourism to leave Wyoming, they start a new adventure, opening their own river business in Ashland, Oregon: Halfmoon Whitewater. They prosper there, leading rafting trips and guiding fishermen into the wilds of Mongolia and Russia. But when Maddy, laid low by dizzy spells, with a mono that isn’t quite mono, both discovers she is pregnant and is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, they realize their adventure is just beginning. Navigating hazards that dwarf any of the rapids they’ve faced together, Maddy narrates her life with Dalt the way she lives it: undaunted, courageous, in the present tense. Driven by her irresistible voice, full of wit and humor and defiance, If Not For This is a love story like no other.
Blurbworthiness:  “What do you do when you get everything you most desire in this life, but getting through every day requires you to be a superhero?  In Pete Fromm’s smart, gorgeous, uplifting and heartbreaking new novel, If Not For This, you consider yourself damn lucky.”  (Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of Once Upon a River)


The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit by Graham Joyce (Doubleday):  Another novel I picked up on that same Country Bookshelf visit (CB really knows how to curate books to my taste) was this new one by British writer Graham Joyce.  I’ve mentioned his earlier end-of-the-world tale, The Silent Land, earlier here at The Quivering Pen, so this was an easy sell to me.  The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit looks like it might make for some great late-summer beach reading (if only I had a beach here in Montana….).  Check out the Opening Lines:
      It was 1976 and the hottest summer in living memory. The reservoirs were cracked and dry; some of the towns were restricted to water from standpipes; crops were failing in the fields. England was a country innocent of all such extremity. I was nineteen and had just finished my first year at college.
      Broke and with time on my hands, I needed a summer job. Looking for a way out from the plans my stepdad had made for me, I got an interview at a holiday resort on the east coast. Skegness, celebrated for that jolly fisherman in gum boots and a sou’wester gamely making headway against a sea- ward gale: It’s so bracing!
      But when I arrived in Skegness there wasn’t a breath of wind, not even a sigh. The train rumbled in on hot iron tracks, decanted me and a few others onto the platform, and wheezed out again. The dirty Victorian red brick of the station seemed brittle, powdery. Flowers potted along the platform wilted and the grubby paintwork was cracked and peeled. I took a double-decker bus—mercifully open-topped—and asked the driver to drop me at the resort. He forgot and had to stop the bus and come up the stairs to tell me he’d passed it by. I had to backpack it a quarter of a mile, all in the shimmering heat. I followed the wire-mesh perimeter of the site with its neat rows of chalets and the seagull-like cries of the holidaymakers.
      I thought I might get a job as a kitchen porter or as a white-jacketed waiter bowling soup plates at the holidaymakers. Any job at all, just so long as I didn’t have to go home. The manager in charge of recruitment—a dapper figure in a blue blazer and sporting a tiny pencil mustache—didn’t seem too interested. He was preoccupied with sprinkling bread crumbs on the corner of his desk. As I waited to be interviewed a sparrow fluttered in through the open window, picked up a crumb in its beak, and flew out again.
And here’s the Jacket Copy (complete with a plague of ladybugs!) to further entice us, like birds to crumbs:
David, a college student, takes a summer job at a run-down family resort in a dying English resort town. This is against the wishes of his family... because it was at this resort where David's biological father disappeared fifteen years earlier. But something undeniable has called David there. A deeper otherworldliness lies beneath the surface of what we see. The characters have a suspicious edge to them. David is haunted by eerie visions of a mysterious man carrying a rope, walking hand-in-hand with a small child...and the resort is under siege by a plague of ladybugs. Something different is happening in this town. When David gets embroiled in a fiercely torrid love triangle, the stakes turn more and more menacing. And through it all, David feels as though he is getting closer to the secrets of his own past. This is a darkly magic and sexy book that has a strong suspense line running through it. It's destined to continue to pull in a wider circle of readers for the exceptionally talented Graham Joyce.

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas (Hogarth):  This new novel by the author of The Slap had me in its grip right from the Opening Lines—words which immediately shot this 433-page book to the top layers of my To-Be-Read pile:
      When the rain first spills from those egg-white foams of cloud that seem too delicate to have burst forth in such a deluge, I freeze. The heavy drops fizz on the dry grass as they hit; I think this is what a pit of snakes would sound like.
      And suddenly the rain is falling in sheets, though the sky is still blue, the sun still shining. The Glaswegians on the pebbled shore are yelling and screaming, rushing out of the water, huddling under the trees, running back to their cars. Except for the chubby young man with the St Andrews tattoo on his bicep, criss-crossed white lines on blue; he is standing in the water up to his knees, grinning, his arms outstretched, welcoming the rain, daring it.
      And just as suddenly the rain has stopped and they all slink back to the beach. Two young boys race past me and throw themselves into the lake. A teenage girl throws away the magazine she has been sheltering beneath, takes out a compact and starts to powder her cheeks and nose, to reapply colour to her lips till they are the pink of fairy floss. Someone has turned the music back on and the words when love takes over roar through the valley. A pale skinny youth with broken teeth and a mop of greasy black hair dives past me; sheets of crystal-clear water splash all over the wading tattooed guy, who grabs his friend, holds him from behind in a bear hug, and ducks him under. He sits on him, laughing. A woman shouts from the shore, "Get off him, Colm, get off him!"
      The chubby guy stands up, grinning, and the thin boy scrambles to his feet, coughing water.
      The girls and the women are all in bikinis, the boys and the men are all in shorts, and bare-chested or in singlets. Except me: I have jeans on and two layers on top, a t-shirt and an old yellowing shirt. The sun feels weak to me; it can’t get any stronger than pleasant, it can’t build to fire, it can’t manage force.
The narrator is Danny, a troubled competitive swimmer who—well, here, let’s let the Jacket Copy explain the plot of Barracuda:
Fourteen-year-old Daniel Kelly is special. Despite his upbringing in working-class Melbourne, he knows that his astonishing ability in the swimming pool has the potential to transform his life, silence the rich boys at the private school to which he has won a sports scholarship, and take him far beyond his neighborhood, possibly to international stardom and an Olympic medal. Everything Danny has ever done, every sacrifice his family has ever made, has been in pursuit of this dream. But what happens when the talent that makes you special fails you? When the goal that you’ve been pursuing for as long as you can remember ends in humiliation and loss? Twenty years later, Dan is in Scotland, terrified to tell his partner about his past, afraid that revealing what he has done will make him unlovable. When he is called upon to return home to his family, the moment of violence in the wake of his defeat that changed his life forever comes back to him in terrifying detail, and he struggles to believe that he’ll be able to make amends. Haunted by shame, Dan relives the intervening years he spent in prison, where the optimism of his childhood was completely foreign. Tender, savage, and blazingly brilliant, Barracuda is a novel about dreams and disillusionment, friendship and family, class, identity, and the cost of success. As Daniel loses everything, he learns what it means to be a good person—and what it takes to become one.
I hate to leave you with an unforgivable pun….but, really, I can’t wait to dive into this novel.